Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography will be showcased at the International Center of Photography now through May 28, 2006.
"Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography," curated by Okwui Enwezor, filled the galleries of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City with a selection of photographs, photo installations, video, and other related works by forty artists from Africa and its recent diasporas. The exhibition comprised over 180 objects, meant to confront the New York art world--collectors and novices alike--with something like an antidote to the redundant "African" imaginary propped up by much of global media.
Enwezor, the recent recipient of prizes for criticism and curatorial work, has championed the cause of African photography for more than ten years, beginning with the resounding success of "In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present" at the Guggenheim. Although far from singular (for instance, during the winter of 2005-2006, the Institut du Monde Arabe [IMA] in Paris held an exhibit, "Regard des Photographes Arabes Contemporains," fed by the same ambitions as "Snap Judgments"), this approach advocated setting aside the unilateral viewpoint imposed by Western media once and for all.
In its place, Enwezor proposed a more intimate view of the African continent, embracing the perspective of those who inhabit the place and whose daily lives are entwined with it. For those unfamiliar with contemporary artists working in Africa and its diasporas, this show offered an introduction to compelling imagery moving beyond the group of mid-century photographers that the phrase "African photography" evokes for many.
"Snap Judgments" consisted of artists' work from the past five or so years, which might suggest that there has been a meteoric rise of engaged contemporary artists working with cameras on the continent. Yet many of the artists featured here make art that resonates with their global contemporaries working in every media from blogs to watercolors, almost anywhere, raising the question, why Africa, why photography? Enwezor endeavors, with enviable eloquence, to answer these questions in his catalogue essays, which are ruminations on the politics of representation about Africa by various outsiders, as well as expansions on a series of related visual themes. He suggests that this group of photographers, linked by their generation more than anything else, offer an analytical view that is postcolonial, more art-worldly than that of earlier generations. They are the next chapter in the metahistory of African photography. Whereas their forebears worked primarily on commission, creating photographs as constitutive of personal memory and essentially dialogic in function, these artists are concerned with individuals' place in society, and also stories about the larger world, documentary and otherwise.
The subjects are not prettified, sentimental, or outlandish. Enwezor proposes that these photographers have overcome, as did Keita and Fosso before them, what he considers the corrosive effects of the camera and its pervasive colonial taint. Thus, the curator battles the cliches even as he reinstates them, which is perhaps why the show was so well received. It is far from a straightforward affair.
The "new positions" these artists offer comprise a satisfyingly disruptive array of visions. There is no overarching spin to carry the show through. Ideas of loss and the transformation of memory inflect the geographic and the graphic in a number of images contending with diaspora. Degradation and accretion pervade Allan de Souza's mucky, rephotographed family snapshots, while Zarina Bhimji's poignant imagery of Uganda, invoking familial memory and displacement, provokes a very different effect. Cityscapes of Cairo, Lagos, and Johannesburg appear, and artists carefully frame vistas of quotidian life, all at thecrossroads of international circuits.
Theo Eshetu's images and reelsof his visit to Mount Ziqualla figure scenes of religious pilgrims and armed guards, a flourishing foreign dreamscape with which he ultimately connects.
Stark black-and-white portraits hide faces of sleeping street boys(Sada Tangara), flipping the cover of optimistic, youthful, deadpan Johannesburg dandies (Nontsileleko "Lolo" Veleko). Several artists use portraiture to rift on mythology, race, and gender, such as Tracy Rose in her subversions of Biblical standards as lush fantasy narratives.
The spaces of anonymous factories in the images of Ali Chraibi andthe blurry costumes in vitrines by Hentie van der Merwe mark the disproportions of human scale and institutional force. The range of subject matters and the photographers' different approaches elucidate thefacts of a very busy artistic force active in certain parts of the African continent and beyond. Looking beyond that, the materials and processes that each artist managed to access offers a counter-narrative: that of the conditions and opportunities of photographers, and their variance with geographic and economic terrain.
In the show, the objects were left to speak for themselves, and this suited some of them just fine. Mikhael Subotzky's tremendous panoramas of jailhouse interiors peer into the faces of South African prisoners and their keepers. The powerful images of established artists like Subotzky, Mthethwa, and Tillim, and the space allotted for their images, completely overwhelmed the presence of other, more discreet displays.
For example, Luis Basto, a young member of the Mozambican school, went almost unnoticed. Images by the talented Nigerian collective Depth of Field were flashed haphazardly, unattributed, on four screens, using some of their older works and disguising any sense of their distinctive qualities, media, and individual trajectories. The domination of the show by South Africans was obvious, leading one to wonder why a show of these artists was not presented instead.
The treasures of the exhibition were not necessarily to be found in expected places. Although poorly presented, the work of Mamadou Gomis ranked among the gripping discoveries of the exhibition. How does a young photographer-reporter comment on current events through photography on a typical day in Senegal? Perhaps a display based on several pages of his daily column, "Arret sur image," published in Dakar's Le Journal newspaper, offered crucially contextualized view of one facet of contemporary Senegalese photography.
Exacerbating the show's uneven feel were disparities in the quality of display. Some C-prints, mounted in small scale and unframed, drifted in small numbers in the basement galleries, while impeccably framed larger format prints and light boxes vied for attention in prominent gallery positions. These discrepancies were reinforced by the choice and number of images that represent each artist in the catalogue.